Congress Moves to Tighten US Regulations on Lobbyists
The voters' ire grows against former officials who cash in on their government experience
WASHINGTON — ROUND and round and round and round it goes - the "revolving door" that turns well-paid government officials into very-well-paid private lobbyists.
Everyone in Washington knows how it works: One day an official will be negotiating a trade deal. A month later, he'll be collecting a fat paycheck as an "adviser" to another nation, which exports billions of dollars of goods to the United States.
Reformers seethe when they look at the record:
* In 1986, the staff director of a US Senate committee resigned. Two months later, the director was working as a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia.
* In 1988, a special assistant to President Bush stepped down. The same month, the official became a lobbyist for South Korea.
* In 1989, a senior US trade official left office. Three months later, he was a registered foreign agent for Indonesia.
Using their personal contacts, trading on inside information, spreading around campaign money, and manipulating the system for their clients, officials-turned-lobbyists are widely scorned. They've drawn the wrath of everyone from President Clinton to the head of Common Cause, a watchdog group.
Lobbyists for other countries and foreign corporations are a particular target of Ross Perot. Next Sunday, in a paid nationwide telecast on NBC, one of the questions he will ask in a phone-in referendum will be: "Should we eliminate foreign lobbyists completely - no loopholes - and make it a criminal offense?"
Analysts suspect most Americans will answer, "Yes."
Congress has tried to slow the revolving door. It passed the Ethics Reform Act of 1989 that targeted ex-employees of the government, including former members of Congress.
The act barred congressmen from lobbying on Capitol Hill for one year after leaving office. It put a similar one-year ban on many executive branch employees. Lifetime bans were placed on federal employees on matters in which they were "personally and substantially involved" while in office.
Still, many on Capitol Hill, feeling heat from voters back home, say that more must be done. The 1989 act too often misses its mark, according to critics like Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.
Three Senate bills now are working their way through Congress in a further effort to lessen the power of lobbyists. Fines for those who violate the laws could run as high as $250,000 for each count. Would chop pensions
One of the bills, the "Responsible Government Act of 1993," sponsored by Senator DeConcini, calls for officials who violate lobbying rules to lose their federal pension benefits.
All this raises cries of alarm from some government officials. F. Gary Davis, general counsel of the Office of Government Ethics, complains that some of the proposals are too harsh.
"The criminal law should not be used to enforce ethics standards" unless a violation "poses a serious threat to the conduct of good government," he told a recent Senate hearing.
Mr. Davis says that the bills would make it harder to recruit qualified employees.
But Senator McCain says: "This revolving door has been a major factor in the public's losing faith and trust in its government."
Charles Lewis, chairman of the Center for Public Integrity, a reform group, says: "Lobbyists ... have become in Washington what investment bankers became in the '80s in New York. There are huge sums of money to be made, and few real controls."
Mr. Lewis says the area of international trade was particularly lucrative for revolving-door officials in the late 1970s and 1980s. He explains: "As America's international trade position became more critical, large sums of money, literally hundreds of millions of dollars - for public relations, traditional lobbying, information monitoring, economic and political analysis, legal representation, etc. - began flowing into Washington from abroad."
At the same time, growing numbers of US trade officials began leaving their public posts to work for foreign interests.
A study by the Center for Public Integrity tracked the careers of 74 officials at the Office of the US Trade Representative, a White House agency. It found that from 1974 to 1990, 47 percent of the former officials from that office had registered, or their firms had registered, as agents for foreign governments or foreign countries.
What more can be done? And how can lobbying laws be further applied to Congress?
The Lobbyists Disclosure Act of 1993, sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, would replace current law, which is filled with loopholes. The legislation would require lobbyists to disclose their clients, identify issues they lobby on, report which congressional committees and federal agencies are contacted, and disclose total receipts from clients.
Senator Levin's bill was approved unanimously by the Committee on Governmental Affairs and is expected to come up for a vote by the full Senate in four to six weeks.
The Ethics in Government Reform Act of 1993, sponsored by Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma and McCain, toughens and broadens enforcement of revolving-door rules. A year to `cool off'
Under one provision, every employee in government, regardless of job or salary grade, would be prohibited from lobbying their former agencies or offices for a one-year "cooling off" period.
Ironically, Capitol Hill reformers find themselves being attacked both for being too soft and for being too harsh.
The Levin bill, for example, was recently ripped by three editorials in the New York Times. They described it as "inadequate," "lame," "flawed," and "a giant hoax." The newspaper suggests the bill be retitled as the "Congressional Freebies Preservation Act."
Levin counters that the Times is not unhappy with what the bill does, but with what it does not do.
The Times would like to see Levin's bill expanded to require that lobbyists reveal, in its words, a "member-by-member listing of the expensive meals, vacations, plane rides, and other goodies lobbyists dole out in the form of legalized bribery." Lobbying as free speech
On the other hand, some civil libertarians say they think the bills go too far. Lobbying, after all, is a form of free speech and is protected by the First Amendment.
Robert Peck, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says the government cannot go very far in limiting what government employees do once they are off the federal payroll.
Mr. Peck says: "Despite the unsavory public image of lobbying - that of fat cats lining `Gucci Gulch' to win concessions at odds with the public interest - lobbying is both the essence of political speech and association, and is specifically protected under the First Amendment...."
Such constitutional limits may require that Congress control its populist impulses, whatever the public outcry, and go only so far in controlling Washington's army of lobbyists.